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Standing in the Gap

A Letter from Bob and Kristi Rice, serving in South Sudan

February 2019

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I looked for a man among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land so that I would not have to destroy it, but I found none. Ezekiel 22:30

I (Kristi) knelt on a mat facing the gathering of men and women of the Anywaa people. I spoke, confessing and acknowledging ways that my ancestors, my people, had hurt the Anywaa tribe. “My ancestors are Europeans, and they decided boundaries without regard for the boundaries of tribes and kingdoms that already existed; your tribe was divided between Ethiopia and Sudan.” I continued with confessions on behalf of Americans and missionaries, including our country’s purchase of slaves that perpetuated the prejudice against Africans and disrespect for their personhood and societies. I could feel the emotion, remorse and guilt, knowing that they had been considered disposable and backward, and that their colonizing government had not invested in education and development for their communities. Some people closed their eyes, not wanting to face me or the emotion welling up in them; many were unsure how to respond to these confessions that they had probably thought but never expected to hear. I asked for their forgiveness, and Omot invited anyone who felt the desire to come and offer forgiveness to me for the confessions I had made. Pastor Jobi was the first to come, hugging me and offering forgiveness.

My confession opened the door for many others that followed. Men and women came forward to confess specific wrongs that their village or family had done against others during a bitter period of conflict within their region. Others confessed how their church had contributed to divisions between denominations in the town and asked forgiveness. As each person confessed, others who were among the group of people who had been wronged would come forward to offer forgiveness. This lasted a full hour, people coming one after the other to acknowledge wrongs done by their group against others. It was a beautiful work of the Holy Spirit, seeing contrite hearts willing to speak the wrongs done, and also seeing people willing to choose forgiveness rather than holding on to the resentment of those wrongs.

This was the third day of the Healing Hearts, Transforming Nations workshop in the remote town of Pochalla. During the first two days, Omot and I had facilitated discussions about God’s desire for unity and his call for us to be a “Holy Nation” (1 Pet 2:9), but how Satan tempts us and destroys unity through prejudice, suffering, fear, and many other evils. Until we find healing for our pain, we will perpetuate this cycle of violence and pain against others. When Jesus died on the cross, he bore our pain and grief as well as our sin (Is. 53:4). We practiced giving over our pain to Jesus and asked him to heal our hearts. We talked about forgiveness and reconciliation, including identificational confession for corporate sin that we call “Standing in the Gap.” Standing in the Gap is acknowledging wrongs done by some group that I identify with, confessing those things to people who have been wronged and asking for their forgiveness.

When I tried to explain the principle of Standing in the Gap to someone recently and described my confession in Pochalla, they responded by saying “but you don’t need forgiveness for things that your ancestors did.” “No,” I replied, “but some people may need the opportunity to forgive.” Later, I reflected that perhaps I did need people’s forgiveness — it was a sobering exercise to learn about, recount, and “take on” wrongs done by my ancestors in that confession. I need to feel contrition for those things, to acknowledge that generations of the people I was speaking to had lived with the consequences of those wrongs, and to seek healing together.

After the poignant and healing time of confession during the workshop, we concluded with a celebration that we call “The King’s Table.” Everyone was given a crown as a sign of membership in God’s Holy Family, and we shared food with each other. We rejoiced at our renewed unity and spoke blessings on each of the village groups represented. The joy was palpable as people sang, danced, and laughed together, and it seemed that no one wanted to leave. As I felt my heart well with joy, I realized that the process of facing our pain and sin together, acknowledging the things that divide us and then confessing and forgiving those wrongs opened the door for this abundance of joy and celebration of each other.

In the region of Pochalla in 2016, political leaders incited division and violence between communities for their own gain. In 2017, the South Sudan Council of Churches brought leaders together and promoted reconciliation that ended the violence. Although there was physical peace, the tension and inner pain of the conflict remained. This is what our workshop came to address — the wounds of the heart and the roots that had led to the conflict. This is the role of the church — to be agents of healing in our communities, to be salt and light. Jesus, in his sacrifice, forgiveness, and extravagant love, leads us by his example. He took on our sins and paid the penalty for them himself; he bridged the gap so that we could be reconciled to God. Acknowledging pain and wrongs of the past, bringing them to light, can open the door for forgiveness, healing, justice, and freedom in our community.

After this workshop in Pochalla, one person told us that he could see physical change in some of the participants as a result of the inner healing they had received. Several people shared testimonies of anger and bitterness that they have had for years that they were finally able to let go of and be able to forgive those who had wounded them. The community in Pochalla has requested follow-up and additional workshops for the surrounding villages. The pervasive, multifaceted conflict in South Sudan in recent years has affected everyone, most of whom remain traumatized, angry, and afraid. People at the grassroots level need healing and need to have the opportunity to confess and forgive people from other groups.

By your partnership with us through prayer and financial giving, you are an agent of healing in the world. Thank you for your prayers for us and for the people of South Sudan! Please pray with us that this work of healing and reconciliation that we see God doing would continue in many more places.

In Christ our healer,

Kristi and Bob

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